2013, 477 pages.
This should be my absolute favourite, top-of-the-list read for 2014, even though the year has just started. After all, it’s written by Kate Atkinson, an author whose books, across various genres, I really enjoy. It’s a time travel book and I love those too, even though it feels a little bit adolescent. It has the Sliding Doors/Groundhog Day thing going on as well, which is also good, although my enjoyment of these two movies became a bit rocky when I began thinking “But hold on, how….?” and questioning the logistics of it all. In terms of subject matter, much of this book is based during the Blitz, which has attracted me ever since I read Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. So, all in all, it should have been a 10 out of 10 winner.
The reason why it isn’t a 10/10 winner confronted me on the opening pages. On November 1930 Ursula enters a German cafe and joins a table laden with cakes where a blonde woman is draped over a fleshy, “softly repellent” man. She places her handbag under the table and settles amongst the others at the table, then reaches down for a handkerchief from her bag. She pulls out a gun and shoots the Fuhrer dead. Darkness falls.
This is the first of multiple deaths that Ursula experiences in this book, each marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls. She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not. She catches Spanish influenza: or she does not. She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not. She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not. It takes a little while to adjust to these constantly-reset scenarios, and by the end of the book I found myself turning frequently to the table of contents that lists the dates of the different episodes. Once I’d realized what was happening, I was happy to go along with the premise and there were few times when the death, or not-death, did not seem completely natural or plausible.
With the exception of the Hitler scenario which opened the book, that is. I found the whole scenario that placed Ursula in Germany unconvincing, and by tying this fictional character to a real-life historical figure Atkinsin rather clumsily and half-heartedly opened up the ’what-if’ historical can of worms. She doesn’t really DO anything with this historical question (which I do enjoy rather guiltily as an historian) and the book as a fictional work doesn’t really need to venture into historiographical waters.
Most of the scenarios are fairly short, until she reaches 1939-40. The Blitz takes up a large proportion of the book and I found myself wishing that Atkinson could get herself out of this narrative quagmire somehow. She does, with the same sleight of hand as she does elsewhere in the book, and even though I like Blitz stories, I was glad that she could leave them behind eventually.
By the time I finished this fairly lengthy book, I found myself pondering just how well Atkinson had developed Ursula as a character. The old writing adage is “show, don’t tell” as far as character development is concerned, and certainly the plot-driven structure of this book means that there is a lot of showing, again and again. Ursula’s responses to these various scenarios all ring true, so Atkinson must have succeeded in creating enough of a character for me, as reader, to judge fidelity against. This is character revealed through events, and through events that occur to Ursula alone. Do we become ourselves only through the events that befall us, I wonder? I found myself wishing that the spotlight could shift away from Ursula for a moment, to encompass the views of other characters as well.
And so, my enjoyment of this book that seems at first sight to tick all my boxes, is somewhat alloyed. I still very much like Kate Atkinson as a writer, and the book brought me a great deal of pleasure. But a 10 out of 10? Probably not….
My score: 8.5/10 ???
Read because: CAE book group selection. I missed the meeting- I wish I’d been there to discuss it further!
Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.